Sophie Tucker

Popular Vaudeville Entertainer

Sophie Tucker about 1920
Sophie Tucker about 1920. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Dates: January 13, 1884 - February 9, 1966

Occupation: vaudeville entertainer
Also known as: "Last of the Red Hot Mamas"

Sophie Tucker was born while her mother was emigrating from the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, to America to join her husband, also a Russian Jew. Her birth name was Sophia Kalish, but the family soon took the last name Abuza and moved to Connecticut, where Sophie grew up working in her family's restaurant. She discovered that singing at the restaurant brought in tips from customers.

Playing piano to accompany her sister at amateur shows, Sophie Tucker quickly became an audience favorite; they called for "the fat girl." At age 13, she already weighed 145 pounds.

She married Louis Tuck, a beer driver, in 1903, and they had a son, Albert, called Bert. She left Tuck in 1906, and left her son Bert with her parents, going to New York alone. Her sister Annie raised Albert. She changed her name to Tucker, and began singing at amateur shows to support herself.  Her divorce from Tuck was completed in 1913.

Sophie Tucker was required to wear blackface by managers who felt that she would not otherwise be accepted, since she was "so big and ugly" as one manager put it. She joined a burlesque show in 1908, and, when she found herself without her makeup or any of her luggage one night, she went on without her blackface, was a hit with the audience, and never wore the blackface again.

Sophie Tucker briefly appeared with the Ziegfield Follies, but her popularity with audiences made her unpopular with the female stars, who refused to go on stage with her.

Sophie Tucker's stage image emphasized her "fat girl" image but also a humorous suggestiveness. She sang songs like "I Don't Want to Be Thin," "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love." She introduced in 1911 the song which would become her trademark: "Some of These Days." She added Jack Yellen's "My Yiddishe Momme" to her standard repertoire about 1925 -- the song was later banned in Germany under Hitler.

Sophie Tucker added jazz and sentimental ballads to her ragtime repertoire, and, in the 1930s, when she could see that American vaudeville was dying, she took to playing England. George V attended one of her musical performances in London.

She made eight movies and appeared on radio and, as it became popular, appeared on television.  Her first movie was Honky Tonk in 1929. She had her own radio show in 1938 and 1939, broadcasting for CBS three times a week for 15 minutes each. On television, she was a regular on variety shows and talk shows including The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show

Sophie Tucker became involved in union organizing with the American Federation of Actors, and was elected president of the organization in 1938. The AFA was eventually absorbed into its rival Actors' Equita as the American Guild of Variety Artists.

With her financial success, she was able to be generous to others, starting the Sophie Tucker foundation in 1945 and endowing in 1955 a theater arts chair at Brandeis University.

She married twice more: Frank Westphal, her pianist, in 1914, divorced in 1919, and Al Lackey, her fan-turned-personal-manager, in 1928, divorced in 1933.  Neither marriage produced children. She later credited her reliance on financial independence for the failure of her marriages.

Her fame and popularity lasted more than fifty years; Sophie Tucker never retired, playing the Latin Quarter in New York only months before she died in 1966 of a lung ailment accompanied by kidney failure.

Always partly self-parody, the core of her act remained vaudeville: earthy, suggestive songs, whether jazzy or sentimental, taking advantage of her enormous voice.  She is credited as an influence on such later women entertainers as Mae West, Carol Channing, Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr.  Bette Midler more explicitly credited her, using "Soph" as the name of one of her on-stage personas, and naming her daughter Sophie.

Sophie Tucker on this site

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sophie Tucker." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Sophie Tucker. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sophie Tucker." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).